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Op-Ed: Standing up to terror appeasement in academia and the media

In Rachel Avraham’s new book titled “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media,” she argues against giving positive publicity to terror groups in the name of objectivity. She criticized Ben-Gurion University for wanting Hamas terrorists to be labeled as militants as well as numerous media outlets who hold a similar mentality.
Photo Credit: Gefen Publishing House

Every journalist who covers political conflicts, terrorism and wars has images that they personally witnessed that stick in their mind, which affect them whenever they write news stories.   For many journalists, it may be the image of the Twin Towers in New York City collapsing, the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan getting blown up, the bodies of dead Syrian refugee children washing up off the coast of Turkey, the image of political dissidents getting tortured and begging for their deaths in Iran during the revolution, or female gang rape survivors wearing niqab telling their stories about how they ran away from ISIS. For me, there are several images that I personally witnessed that stick in my mind whenever I write these types of news articles.

When I was 22 years old, my then boyfriend now husband and I were in Tiberius for the weekend visiting Daniele Knapp, who is a first cousin of my husband’s mother.  I noticed that she had a dog that never barked.  He did not bark when we entered the home and throughout our visit, he did not make a sound and we were there for an entire weekend.   Innocently, I commented to Daniele that she has a very well-behaved dog.  This was before I knew anything about her. 

But I was soon to discover that good manners were not the reason for the dog’s silence.  The dog was silent for he was traumatized. Daniele’s son Claude was murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber at the age of 29 during the Second Intifada. The dog was with him during the time of the terror attack and as a result of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he doesn’t bark like other dogs do. The trauma of his owner getting murdered stuck with the dog until his death.  The image of the silent dog who doesn’t bark due to surviving a suicide bombing has stuck with me throughout my professional career. It has affected how I write all of my articles on terrorism.

Another image that refuses to leave my memory is that of Carmela Arami, the mother of Hanit Arami, who was murdered at age 18 in a suicide bombing during the Second Intifada, fainting at my brother-in-law’s funeral.   After losing her beautiful daughter to a Palestinian suicide bomber, she could not bear to bury also her nephew after he was killed in a car accident.  For this reason, she physically collapsed and fainted in front of everyone.  Personally witnessing the sorrow in her eyes whenever I saw her has stuck with me and affected me whenever I write articles.     

Still yet another image that sticks in my head while writing news articles are the scenes that I personally witnessed in Beersheba when a qassam rocket struck the city while I was living there.   Between September 2009 and March 2014, I was living in the city of Beersheba and this gave me intimate exposure to what it was like to live under rocket fire.  Whether it was me running to the bomb shelter naked in the winter with nothing but a towel on as I was in the middle of a shower when the bomb sirens went off, masses of people in a shopping mall trying unsuccessfully to enter into a stairwell leading to a bomb shelter or a woman screaming as a qassam struck the city, these images never leave me and have become part of who I am. 

For this reason, in grad school, when my thesis adviser told me that my thesis could not get accepted unless I refrain from calling suicide bombers terrorists, I could not sit by silently and accept such an instruction. How could I refrain from calling the murderers of Hanit Arami, Claude Knapp, and so many other innocent people terrorists just because Ben-Gurion University dictates that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter? How could I look my neighbors in the eye and say that the terrorists who fired qassams at our city were just militants?  No, anyone who wantonly murders civilians for political reasons is a terrorist and should be called as such for to do otherwise is equivalent to saying that murder is acceptable and justifiable in the name of perceived Palestinian grievances. 

This is why no matter how much pressure I was put under with the threat of my thesis not being accepted looming above my head, I refused to call Palestinian terrorists militants and instead wrote suicide bombers and their dispatchers or suicide bombing dispatching organization, a term that although not ideal was less objectionable than militant.  Furthermore, the second I decided to publish my thesis in book format, I inserted the term terrorist wherever I was forced in my thesis to write suicide bombing dispatching organization instead of terror group and added two chapters to my study discussing my struggle against terror appeasement at Ben-Gurion University as well as explaining the example for ethical journalism that I have tried to set since I began my writing career four years ago.

Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israel and Arab media is my first book and it exposes how international media outlets have systematically been exploited by terror groups in the name of objectively covering the news.  As part of my comprehensive research for my masters’ thesis, I studied news articles and media clips online as well as in the archives at the Library of Congress, the National Library of Israel and at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.  I examined whether a news article or media clip fit into a particular frame that generates sympathy for the Palestinian terrorist and the terror group that dispatched them.  I found that the American and even the Israeli media have covered the perspective of the Palestinian terror groups during the Second Intifada, thus giving into the publicity objectives of the Palestinian terror groups just so they can be called balanced journalists.

However, for asymmetrical conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the quality of information presented by both sides is not equal and therefore by presenting both sides in this instance, the journalist is distorting the reality. Just to give one example, during the Second Intifada, since the Palestinian Authority is an authoritarian dictatorship and not a democracy, the Palestinian Journalist Union forbade photographers from taking pictures of children engaged in armed conflict or terror groups training for suicide bombings.  In October 2000, a British photographer who attempted to take a picture of the Ramallah lynching was beaten up by Palestinian mobs and had the photo not escaped with an Italian crew, the whole story of the Ramallah lynching might not have gotten out.  Meanwhile, Israel has not barred any journalist from writing stories that show Israel in a negative light for Israel is a democratic country that respects freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  

This reality creates an asymmetrical situation where numerous stories that show Israel in a negative light get printed around the world while many stories that show the Palestinian Authority in a not so positive light are not getting printed. At the same time, unsubstantiated claims and allegations against Israel are printed in the name of objectivity, even if they show terrorists in a positive light. One infamous example was Nightline’s special on Hanadi Jaradat titled “The Bombers,” where journalist John Yang started out by mentioning the horrendous suicide bombing she committed and then interviewed a number of Palestinian women who justified her actions in the name of Palestinian misery and despair.  One of them even said she was more of a victim than the people in the restaurant and still another called her a heroine.  This was shown on Nightline without critical commentary questioning such allegations.   While the American media is not overtly pro-terrorist, their justification of the terrorist’s act of wanton violence and destruction in the name of Palestinian grievances, poverty and despair fits in neatly to the publicity objectives of the Palestinian terror groups, who are seeking maximum publicity for their cause.

In the case of the Arab media, the Palestinian female suicide bombers are heroized and glorified, thus rallying the Arab masses behind the terrorists. For the Arab media, they are overtly displayed as feminist heroines who are as beautiful as the Mona Lisa and as great as Joan D’Arc, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Muhammed’s first wife Khadija, which was demonstrated well during the suicide bombing of Wafa Idris. These women are portrayed this way even if they look homely in reality and had other reasons for blowing themselves up aside from Palestinian nationalism, Islamic convictions, and feminist beliefs.  Indeed, out of all of the successful Palestinian female suicide bombers of the Second Intifada, only Darine Abu Aisha held feminist beliefs. 

However, five of the eight could not be described as normative within Palestinian society.  Wafa Idris was a barren divorcee that had no future as a woman within her society.  Darine Abu Aisha was a feminist intellectual who refused to marry for she did not want to be a slave.  After she allegedly kissed a man, she was going to be forced to give up on her studies and to marry him.  As a result, she blew herself up instead.  Hiba Daraghmeh was raped by a mentally retarded uncle. Ayat Al Akhras was the daughter of a suspected collaborator who fell victim to constant harassment due to his refusal to give up his job at an Israeli company.  And Reem Riyashi is believed to have been an honor crime victim who is suspected to have cheated on her husband.  But to the Arab media, all of these women are feminist heroines who defied the notion that women are puppets.  This propaganda has the effect of assisting the Palestinian terror groups with recruitment and popular support for their cause. 

Palestinian female suicide bombers receive eight times more publicity than their male counter-parts and the publicity is more likely to be positive than had the suicide bomber been a male due to the inherent biases that exist in both Israeli and American society, where women are perceived as the givers of life and the victims of violence.  They are the ones who are raped, victims of domestic violence and murdered in the name of family honor. Thus, it is incomprehensible in these societies to blame women for acts of wanton violence and destruction. The Palestinian terror organizations play on this in order to generate sympathy for their cause and to attract increased publicity in the target state.  

Similarly, within their own society, they exploited Palestinian female society bombers during the Second Intifada in order to shame the men into action. As the chief editor of Al Quds Al Arabi wrote following the suicide bombing of Ayat Al Akhras, “What a shame it is for Arab leaders when girls like Wafa Idris and Ayat Al Akhras come forward and sacrifice their lives for this nation’s honor, dignity and glory while these leaders are begging President Bush to intervene on their behalf and pleading with Sharon to take pity on them and on their shameful position that is embarrassing them before their peoples and even their wives and children.”

Toward the end of my thesis writing, I began my journalism career at United with Israel and I saw that the trends that I witnessed during my research of the Second Intifada are still prevalent today.   For example, during Operation Pillar of Defense, Palestinian terror groups portrayed dead Syrian children, the Israeli victims of a Palestinian rocket attack in Kiryat Malachi, the Israeli victims of the Café Moment suicide bombing in Jerusalem and a Palestinian who fell victim to a Hamas rocket attack as victims of Israeli aggression.  All of these false allegations were repeated in the West as if they were facts.  The Western media mentioned these claims without fact-checking and taking into consideration that the conflict is highly asymmetrical.  Thus, the word of a Palestinian terror group is not like the word of an elected official in a democratic society.

What I witnessed during Operation Pillar of Defense continues to date.   As we speak, during the Knife Intifada, the Western and Arab media covers Palestinian terror attacks including ones perpetrated by women in the same manner that they did during the Second Intifada. For example, after two 13-year-old girls from Ramle attacked a Police officer, Reuters proclaimed that “the bloodshed is partly fueled by Palestinian frustration over the long-stalled peace process and at perceived Jewish encroachment on a Jerusalem shrine.” They did not mention the issue of Palestinian incitement at all and essentially repeated the Palestinian assertion that “Al Aqsa is in danger” without offering any sort of critical commentary investigating whether it was true or a propaganda point. After two Palestinian female teenagers stabbed an elderly man in Jerusalem with scissors, the Daily Mail mentioned the Palestinian incitement that prompted the terror attack as a side note while placing emphasis on the tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, Palestinian frustration regarding “over a half of century of occupation,” and their lack of hope for obtaining independence. The article even accused Israel of using excessive force and argued that the terror attack could be halted in a less violent way. In other words, the focus was not on the terror attack but how Israel responded to the terror attack.  This is the results of what happens when coverage is given to terror groups in the name of objectivity.

At JerusalemOnline, whenever I cover terror attacks, I never give into the publicity objectives of the terrorists by offering them positive publicity. For me, terrorists are eliminated, not killed. They are always called terrorists and never militants or freedom fighters. Quotes from terror leaders justifying an act of wanton violence and destruction simply should not be printed. Only if the terrorist or terror group offers real information that enhances the article should their stuff be printed.  Justifications for violence should never be printed.  And as a writer, I have dedicated my journalistic career to living by these values for whenever I write, I remember the image of the dog that doesn’t bark, the mother of an Israeli terror victim fainting on the floor, and the graphic scenes I witnessed in Beersheba whenever there was a rocket attack and given these images that are in my mind, I feel a strong need to stand up to terrorists and terror groups by whatever means possible and cannot bring myself to give them positive coverage in the name of objectivity.

I am a religious person.  I keep a kosher home.  I keep Shabbat.  I wear a hair covering whenever I leave the home.  I go to synagogue every week and have read the entire Torah plus commentaries.  In the United States, I would be considered Modern Orthodox.  Given this background, I have a strong conviction regarding what is right and what is wrong.  For justice to prevail in this world, we journalists need to be the voice for the voiceless and to give written expression to those who have experienced grave injustices and were the victims of crimes against humanity.  To murder someone or to try and murder someone merely because they are part of the wrong religious group from the perspective of a terror group is a crime against humanity.  There can be no justification for it.  Therefore, any news company that respects themselves and considers themselves to value morality should stand by the terror victims and not the terrorists, even if it means less access to certain places or facing threats from terrorists and non-democratic regimes.  A true journalist who values their work should be prepared to die to get the truth out to the entire world rather than give into the threats that they face from the forces of darkness.   Only when journalists stop giving into the publicity objectives of terror groups will the Palestinian terror groups stop exploiting women in order to generate positive publicity for their cause.

 “Women and Jihad” can be purchased here!

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Qassam rockets on display in Sderot Photo Credit: Rachel Avraham


JOL Blogger | Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.  She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. She worked as a content manager and writer for United with Israel and had a blog in the Jewish Press. She has over 4 years of experience working for Zionist non-profits.

Avraham specialty is counter-terrorism, women's rights, minority rights, Middle Eastern affairs and international relations.  

She is the author of Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media, a ground-breaking book on terrorism in the Middle East that was endorsed by former Israel Consul General to Miami, former Israel Consul General to Chicago and former Deputy Mayor of Netanya Yitzchak Ben Gad. Click here to purchase the book

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